James Fenimore Cooper was America's first successful popular novelist. Son of the prominent federalist William Cooper, founder of the Cooperstown settlement, James was educated at Yale in preparation for a genteel life as a federalist gentleman. After his father's death in an 1809 duel, Cooper quickly squandered his inheritance, and at thirty was on the verge of bankruptcy. He turned to writing but his first book,
Precaution (1820), was a failure. It did, however, receive some favorable reviews and he decided to try again. In searching for another topic, he remembered the story of a spy, which had been related to him by John Jay years before, recurred to his memory, and the surroundings of his home Westchester county, the debatable ground of both armies during almost the whole revolutionary period furnished a convenient stage.
The Spy was the result, and during the winter of 1821-22 the American public awoke to the fact that it possessed a novelist of its own. The success of this book, which was unprecedented at the time in the meager annals of American literature, determined Cooper's career and he went on to write more than fifty novels.
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